Legislators should take advantage of the Valley’s redhot real estate market by speeding up the sale of state trust lands to better fund schools and teachers, Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett said Monday.
But some education advocates worry a huge land sale could have the opposite effect by driving down market prices. And conservationists warn a land rush could destroy some scenic vistas.
Bennett and other Senate leaders are proposing to auction at least four times as much trust land each year. To accomplish that, the State Land Department would receive $6 million more a year, enough to triple that agency’s staff.
The goal would be to potentially raise billions of dollars for the land trust. Interest could be used to pay for education priorities, including $300 million each year for new school construction and to boost teacher salaries, Bennett said.
"If we don’t do something like this, the future beneficiaries of this trust should shoot us," said Bennett, a Prescott Republican.
Arizona owns about 8.5 million acres that has to be leased or sold at market value under state and federal law. The proceeds go into a special trust that now holds about $1 billion. The state has been selling up to 2,000 acres a year, Bennett said, with some auctions fetching as much as $200,000 an acre.
About two years ago, a collection of developers, conservationists, ranchers and groups started negotiations to accelerate the sale of some trust lands while other areas would be set aside for outdoor recreation and open space. But those groups have been unable to agree with lawmakers on a final package.
Bennett said the Legislature shouldn’t be deterred by the latest negotiation failure last week. The state still owns about 227,000 acres just in the Valley, Bennett said. If state officials picked up the pace and started selling 10,000 to 20,000 acres a year, the land trust could grow by more than $10 billion in five years, he said.
As part of Bennett’s proposal, the Legislature would dictate how the new funds are spent instead of each school district receiving a proportionate share. That would help the state reduce some inequities among school districts, such as the "career ladder" program where some districts receive extra funds to increase the pay of teachers who have more training.
While school district advocates want to see the land trust grow, they didn’t immediately embrace Bennett’s proposal Monday. "We shouldn’t be selling every piece of property in the next few years," Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Board Officials.
The proposal likely will be challenged by conservation groups unless it protects some scenic trust lands. Conservationists have sought such protection for trust lands in Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains and the Superstition Mountains foothills east of Gold Canyon.